A double train wreck near Cayuse in March of 1910 caused the deaths of two railroad employees, including the engineer that was running his machine at high speed down the mountain.
Engineer S.L. Risk and Fireman Edwin Hopple set out about 8 a.m. with Engine No. 215 running light (pulling no cars) on March 20, 1910, from Kamela in the Blue Mountains toward Umatilla after assisting a freight train up the mountain from La Grande. The freight train went on ahead of Risk and Hopple, but No. 215 passed the train at Porter, a wood station between Meacham and Huron.
Risk and Hopple were apparently coming down the river at a high rate of speed and, while negotiating a 9% curve where the road first meets the river east of Mission, the engine leapt the track and hurled itself into the bluff on the left side of the tracks. The crash sheared off all its outer trim and buried most of the engine in the soft alkali dirt of the bluff on the side of the road opposite the river.
Risk’s body was thrown backward out of the cab, on top of the coal. Though he was lying entirely free of debris from the crash except for one arm, he was pinned down in such a way that he was literally scalded alive. Hopple’s body was jammed in against the firebox and covered by a ton of coal. It took several hours’ work to dig him out.
Though both the engine and the coal tender were hurled clear of the rails, the corner of the tender was close enough to the track that another train could not pass unobstructed. Thus, when the block signal registered “all clear” to the freight train coming 20 minutes behind, there was no way of knowing the danger that lie ahead.
Engineer Walter G. Robinson, Fireman C.L. Wilson and Brakeman W.O. Rose were in the cab of Engine No. 385 when the freight train, traveling 25 to 35 mph, rounded the curve and saw the wrecked engine and coal tender. Engineer Robinson immediately closed the throttle, threw on the air brakes and swing out of his side of the cab. He was followed an instant later by the brakeman, who left via the window. Though neither man had said a word, Fireman Wilson concluded something was up and swung out onto the running board on his side, dropping off the just as the nose of their engine struck the corner of the derailed tender. Engine No. 385 was shunted off on the other side, down a 75-foot embankment and into the river.
Robinson and Rose rolled down the embankment, while Wilson landed in a puddle of water leaking from the damaged tender. He remained where he fell for what seemed like an age, expecting to have train cars piling on top of him.
Five of the cars following their engine were smashed to kindling, with the contents scattered in every direction. The first car was loaded with steel rails, some of which were hurled through the end of the car and landed much in front of where it stopped. The second car contained sacks of cement, and the third and fourth were loaded with coal. A fifth car also carried rails, which added to the pile of wreckage.
The surviving train crew called in the wreck from a portable phone in the caboose of the freight train. Because wrecker trains in the area were otherwise occupied, no work could be done to clear the tracks until 6 p.m. The lay of the land in the area of the wreck, with high bluffs on one side of the tracks and the river on the other, meant temporary tracks could not be laid around the accident site, so all trains were held in Pendleton, Gibbon and La Grande until early in the morning on March 21.
Hundreds of local citizens traveled to the wreck site, including every auto in Pendleton making the trip more than once. Some people even rode the wrecker trains out to the crash and walked back to town.
The crash was the first double wreck on that portion of the railroad, but not the first accident in the area. In 1906 eight cars of coal were dumped over the embankment within yards of the 1910 crash, and in 1907 a disastrous wreck five miles away took the lives of four people and seriously injured others.